Sharon Fairley came to public prominence in 2015 as Rahm Emanuel’s pick to lead Chicago’s police oversight agency—then the Independent Police Review Authority (IPRA)—in the wake of revelations about the city’s attempts to conceal the killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by Chicago Police officer Jason Van Dyke in 2014. She’s now among ten candidates vying to replace her former boss, Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan. Fairley has spent the last two years under intense public scrutiny as the head of an agency that the Department of Justice found failed to deliver justice to victims of police misconduct. She also led IPRA’s transmutation into a new city agency, the Civilian Office of Police Accountability (COPA). She says her run to be Illinois’s top lawyer doesn’t have much to do with all that, though. And, for the record, she says she doesn’t “know Rahm well.”
How do you respond to a voter who may be considering your candidacy and feeling skeptical, feeling like you’re using a political appointment by Rahm Emanuel that stemmed from the Laquan McDonald cover-up to position yourself to be attorney general?
I’m always sort of perplexed by this issue where people express concern about my independence just because Rahm appointed me. I don’t know Rahm well. I mean, I can only remember one time in my life that I’ve actually been in the same room with him in person before he appointed me.
It’s not like he gave me this tremendously cushy job. I believe this is one of the hardest jobs that existed in city government at the time—in the white, hot spotlight, making decisions, thrown into a situation where the city’s in crisis against a strong department of largely white men. This is not like a plum city appointment. He didn’t do me a favor. Most of my friends actually thought I was crazy by taking that job.
And the second thing is I’m absolutely not trying to parlay anything into anything. My decision to enter this race is based off of my entire record, not just that particular experience. I spent eight years as a federal prosecutor and did a lot of really important work and got a lot of really relevant experience that’s important in the role of attorney general. I prosecuted narcotics and gangs, I prosecuted firearms trafficking cases, I prosecuted a bank robbery murder case, I did counterintelligence and counterespionage work. And you know beyond that I’m not just some Joe Schmo candidate. I’ve got an undergraduate degree from Princeton in mechanical and aerospace engineering. I’ve got some serious credentials to do this job, so I don’t understand why people would think that’s even remotely appropriate to say about me.
At the same time, Rahm wasn’t going to appoint someone that he couldn’t count on. How do you explain to people what made you the right person for that moment?
I can’t at all speak to why he picked me because I really don’t have any idea, other than the fact that I was a qualified person. I had a good reputation as a smart, capable lawyer, and I was already working for the city. Beyond that I can’t speak to what his motivations are. But what I can point to is the work that I did when I was there. I pushed back on the administration on several fronts, including in the days of when we were working to get the [COPA] ordinance. I pushed back and strongly stood up for the budget and corralled the aldermen to get the support of the City Council to get that done. Same thing about pushing back against the city—the city really resisted the idea of COPA having the power to get outside counsel. I really pushed back on that. I made the agency way more transparent than it’s ever been before.
There were times when I had to butt heads with the department, and I did that all independently, without any care for where the administration sits on that. So I considered myself to be working for the citizens of Chicago, not Rahm Emanuel, when I was in that job.
So much of the conversation about police misconduct focuses on Chicago. What will you do about investigating police misconduct in the suburbs and in other parts of the state?
We know that there’s been a lot of concern about officer-involved shootings and police violence in Chicago over the last couple of years. We also know—recently they’ve done the reporting at WBEZ—that officer-involved shootings are an issue beyond the city as well. We need to address the legal structure that governs the use of legal force by law enforcement. And I think there’s a couple ways to approach that. One is really focus on shaping the policies that are in place in law enforcement agencies throughout the state, much like the Chicago Police Department addressed their policy last year and made significant and very important improvements. But also there’s a state law, there’s a statute that dictates the sort of instances under which law enforcement officers can use lethal force, and I believe that that needs to change as well.
I think there’s a lot that can be done to make sure that law enforcement officers are being held accountable when they need to be. Police accountability is not anti-police—it’s meant to make sure officers have the training and skills that they need to do the job well and also so that we have checks and balances in place. If they are acting outside of the way that they’re supposed to, then they’re going to be held accountable. When the public understands and believes that officers are being held accountable, then they are much more likely to have trust and faith in the system and participate in a process that really helps us solve crime and prevent crime. So police accountability really is a win-win for everybody when it’s done well.
The current attorney general, your former boss, Lisa Madigan, has this lawsuit to get court oversight of police reform—are you planning on pursuing that?
Absolutely. I’m thrilled to see Lisa Madigan stepping into the void left by the Trump administration and DOJ under Jeff Sessions. They basically walked away from any involvement in police accountability work, and so she absolutely did the right thing. We know from looking at jurisdictions across the country that having court-monitored reform is really the only way to achieve long-lasting reform of a police department. And when you’re looking at a department of [CPD’s] size and complexity, with the seriousness of the problems that have been observed here, court oversight is just essential to making progress. That’s going to be, in my view, a very important part of the mission of the office of the attorney general for several years to come. This is not a short-term process, this could be upwards of ten years on a single project.
You spent ten years working in the pharmaceuticals industry. What did you take away from that experience that could be helpful for you as attorney general, especially with regard to combating the opioid crisis?
I know that the marketing practices of these companies have a profound effect on doctors’ prescribing habits. That’s a huge part of the problem, and that’s why I believe that the attorneys general have done the right thing in suing these companies to try to recover the cost they have incurred by fostering the kind of health-care practices that have caused these folks to become addicted. I mean, there’s no reason for somebody who has a minor issue to be prescribed an opioid for several days. I know how the medical marketing works. I wasn’t working on marketing to doctors. I worked on marketing to consumers, which was fairly new at the time. Obviously what we need to do is make sure that these companies are following the law when it comes to their marketing and that they aren’t going beyond what they’re supposed to be doing in terms of the promises they make about the drugs and how they’re directing doctors to use them. We also have to worry about doctors’ prescribing habits, and then we also have to educate consumers about the risks.
Is there an under-the-radar issue that you will have power to do something about if you are elected attorney general that you think people should be discussing more?
We’ve had a rough week when it comes to gun violence. It’s so saddening and disheartening when I think about the lack of progress made from a legislative perspective, not only on a federal level, but also in the state of Illinois. I don’t understand why we cannot get the Gun Dealer Licensing Act [a proposal to regulate gun stores] done, why we can’t get a ban on assault weapons and bump stocks done here in Illinois.
In  the Seventh Circuit demanded that we had to address the concealed carry situation for the state. Not only did they create this structure for concealed carry, but they actually put in place a statewide preemption that basically says anything having to do with the regulation of the licensing and the possession of handguns and the possession of assault weapons has to be handled at the state level—meaning municipalities can’t make their own rules. I think that’s ridiculous. To me that’s just another signal of how strong the NRA is and the symbol of the failed leadership of our legislators.
Here in Chicago 40 percent of the guns recovered in crime come from sources within Illinois; the other 60 percent come from outside of Illinois. We need to get our own house in order, to deal with that 40 percent. But we also need to stand tall for the states that surround us, that don’t have strong gun laws, and really push for federal gun legislation and push the other states around to do the right thing, because our citizens are getting hurt. We need stronger leadership out of our political leaders to solve this problem, and we’re just not seeing it right now. v